United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
October 7, 2005.
GEORGE A. STROLL, Petitioner
PHILLIP L. JOHNSON, ET AL., Respondents.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: RICHARD CONABOY, Senior District Judge
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
George A. Stroll, an inmate presently confined at the Rockview
State Correctional Institution Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, filed
this pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to
28 U.S.C. § 2254. The only Respondent actually named is Warden
Phillip Johnson of the State Correctional Institution,
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Petitioner's prior place of
confinement). Service of the petition was previously ordered.
Stroll states that he was convicted of first degree murder and
criminal conspiracy following a jury trial in the Dauphin County
Court of Common Pleas. He was sentenced to a term of life
imprisonment. By way of background, Petitioner and his brother,
Gregory Stroll, were convicted of beating their landlord to death
with a baseball bat in a dispute about rent.
Following his conviction, Stroll filed a direct appeal with the
Pennsylvania Superior Court. His appeal asserted the following claims: (1) the trial court erred by permitting the Defendants'
statements to be read into evidence; (2) the evidence was
insufficient to sustain a conviction for first degree murder; (3)
the Commonwealth's medical expert should not have been allowed to
draw and display in red ink the location of multiple blows to a
sketch of the victim's head; (4) a photograph of bloodstained
clothing and shoes worn by the Petitioner on the night of the
killing was impermissibly allowed into evidence; and (5) the
trial court erred by refusing to give the jury an involuntary
manslaughter instruction. See Commonwealth v. Stroll,
671 A.2d 773 (Pa. Super 1995) (Table). A petition for allowance of
appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was denied. See
Commonwealth v. Stroll, 682 A.2d 309 (Pa. 1996) (Table).
Stroll then sought relief pursuant to Pennsylvania's Post
Conviction Relief Act (PCRA). His PCRA petition presented two
issues of ineffective assistance of counsel: (1) failure to
object to the trial court's determination that co-defendant
Gregory Stroll's guilty plea to first degree murder was
involuntarily made, a determination which deprived Petitioner of
entering a guilty plea to third degree murder; and (2) neglecting
to object to the terms of the joint plea bargain agreement which
coupled guilty pleas of the defendants. The Superior Court
affirmed the denial of the PCRA petition. See Commonwealth v.
Stroll, 742 A.2d 212 (Pa.Super. 1999) (Table). The Pennsylvania
Supreme Court denied the Petitioner's petition for allowance of appeal. See
Commonwealth v. Stroll, 747 A.2d 368 (Pa. 1999) (Table).
Stroll's present habeas corpus petition sets forth the
following three claims: (1) the trial court violated the
Confrontation Clause by overruling an objection to the admittance
of "two mutually accusatory extrajudicial hearsay statements read
to the jury";*fn1 (2) the evidence was insufficient to
support the jury's finding of guilt; and (3) the trial court
erred by refusing to grant Petitioner's request for an
involuntary manslaughter jury instruction.
Standard of Review
"The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996
modified a federal habeas court's role in reviewing state
prisoner applications in order to prevent federal habeas
`retrials' and to ensure that state-court convictions are given
effect to the extent possible under law." Bell v. Cone,
535 U.S. 685, 693 (2002). Specifically, when a federal-law issue has
been adjudicated on the merits by a state court, the federal
court reverses only when the decision was contrary to, or
involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established
Federal law, as determined by the United States Supreme Court.
28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1).*fn2 See generally, Gattis v. Snyder, 278 F.3d 222, 234 (3d Cir. 2002); Moore v.
Morton, 255 F.3d 95, 104-05 (3d Cir. 2001). The Court has held
that the "contrary to" and "unreasonable application" clauses of
§ 2254(d)(1) have independent meaning. Williams v. Taylor,
529 U.S. 362, 404-405 (2000). As explicated in Bell,
535 U.S. at 694:
A federal habeas court may issue the writ under the
`contrary to' clause if the state court applies a
rule different from the governing law set forth in
our cases, or if it decides a case differently than
we have done on a set of materially indistinguishable
facts. . . . The court may grant relief under the
`unreasonable application' clause if the state court
correctly identifies the governing legal principle
from our decisions but unreasonably applies it to the
facts of the particular case. . . . The focus of the
latter inquiry is on whether the state court's
application of clearly established federal law is
objectively unreasonable. . . .
Furthermore, resolution of factual issues by the state courts are
presumed to be correct unless the petitioner shows by clear and
convincing evidence that they are not. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).
In summary, the appropriate inquiry for federal district courts
in reviewing the merits of § 2254 petitions is whether the state court decisions applied a rule different from the governing
law set forth in United States Supreme Court cases, decided the
case before them differently than the Supreme Court has done on a
set of materially indistinguishable facts, or unreasonably
applied Supreme Court governing principles to the facts of the
particular case. State court factual findings may be set aside
only if rebutted by clear and convincing evidence.
Petitioner initially alleges that the Confrontation Clause was
violated when the trial court allowed his incriminating statement
and one by his brother/co-Defendant to be admitted at trial. This
claim is two fold. First, Stroll contends that even though a
cautionary instruction was given and his name was redacted when
his codefendant's confession was introduced, the admission of
that statement violated the standards announced in Bruton v.
United States, 391 U.S. 123 (1968). See Doc. 1, p. 4. He adds
that the state courts' determination regarding this issue was an
unreasonable application of federal law. Second, because the
statements of he and his codefendant were not accurate
renditions, their admission should have been precluded.
Petitioner asserts that the rendition of the statements read at
trial added and then emphasized that he had a specific intent to
The Respondents argue that a violation of Bruton did not
occur because both brothers testified at trial. Furthermore,
habeas corpus relief is not warranted because the Pennsylvania Superior Court made a proper determination that the statements
were accurate and that any issue regarding their credibility was
to be resolved by the trier of fact.
The Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment provides that:
"in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right
. . . to be confronted with the witnesses against them."
Monachelli v. Warden, SCI-Graterford, 884 F.2d 749, 751 (3d
Cir. 1989) (citing Pointer v. Texas, 380 U.S. 400, 404 (1965)).
However, it does not guarantee criminal defendants `the
absolute right to a face-to-face meeting with witnesses against
them at trial." Maryland v. Craig, 497 U.S. 836, 844 (1990).
The protections of the Confrontation Clause are applicable to
persons facing state prosecutions under the Fourteenth Amendment.
In Bruton, the United States Supreme Court recognized that a
criminal defendant's rights under the Confrontation Clause may be
violated if a codefendant's confession is placed before the jury
at their joint trial. The Bruton codefendant made an out of
court confession implicating the defendant. During trial the
codefendant refused to take the witness stand, consequently, the
Supreme Court concluded that the defendant was denied his
constitutional right of confrontation because the out of court
confession by the codefendant was presented to the jury in a form
not subject to cross-examination.
In California v. Green, 399 U.S. 149 (1970), the Supreme
Court clarified that a Confrontation Clause violation did not
occur when a declarant's out of court statement was admitted as long as
the declarant was testifying as a witness and subject to full and
effective cross-examination. A subsequent Supreme Court ruling,
Nelson v. O'Neil, 402 U.S. 622, 629 (1971), similarly held that
there was no Bruton violation "where a codefendant takes the
stand in his own defense, denies making an alleged out of court
statement implicating the defendant and proceeds to testify
favorably to the defendant concerning the underlying facts."
The present case does involve the admission of an out of court
statement by a non-testifying codefendant. On the contrary, it is
undisputed that both the Petitioner and his codefendant brother
gave testimony at trial. Furthermore, Petitioner was represented
by counsel and had full opportunity to cross-examine his
codefendant. Stroll's present petition also indicates that a
cautionary instruction was given and his name was redacted from
his codefendant's statement. Based on this Court's review of the
record there was no resulting prejudice to the Petitioner and the
introduction of his codefendant's out of court statement did not
With respect to Stroll's claim that inaccurate renditions of
the confessions were provided to the jury, the Pennsylvania
Superior Court's resolution of this factual issue is deemed
correct unless contradicted by clear and convincing evidence. A
review of the record establishes that Stroll has not presented
any supporting facts which would satisfy his burden of presenting
clear and convincing evidence that the challenged of court statements which
were introduced at trial were inaccurate. This claim will be
Stroll next maintains that there was insufficient evidence to
support the jury's finding that he committed first degree murder.
He indicates that the origin of blood stain evidence was not
authenticated by the Commonwealth and that a proper foundation
was not laid for the introduction the blood stain evidence. He
adds that it was never established that the blood was that of the
victim. Respondents contend that the evidence presented at trial
clearly established that Petitioner and his brother planned to
kill the victim and thereafter carried out the murder.
The standard of review used by a federal court when addressing
the issue of sufficiency of the evidence is "whether after
viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the
prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the
essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt."
Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319, reh'g denied,
444 U.S. 390 (1979).
The recitation of the evidence by the Superior Court is
corroborated by this Court's independent review of the record.
Based on an application of the standards announced in Jackson,
there was clearly sufficient evidence that supported the first
degree murder conviction reached by the jury. It is noted that
the victim was found lying in a pool of blood after having been
beaten to death. Both the Petitioner and his codefendant
confessed to the murder and there was additional testimony and
evidence connecting Petitioner to the crime. Stroll's claim will
Petitioner's final argument is that the trial court erred by
refusing his request to provide the jury with an involuntary
manslaughter instruction. Stroll notes that involuntary
manslaughter is a lesser included offense, thus, the jury should
have been provided with that option. Respondent states that an
involuntary manslaughter instruction was not warranted because
there no evidence which would support such a verdict.
Federal habeas corpus relief may issue only if the court finds
that an error in the jury charge "had substantial and injurious
effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict." Brecht
v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 623 (1993). Propriety of jury
instructions is to be determined by assessing the entire set of
instructions. Victor v. Nebraska, 511 U.S. 1, 5 (1994), United
States v. Issacs, 134 F.3d 199, 203 (3d Cir. 1998). The primary
point of inquiry is "whether viewed in light of the evidence, the
charge as a whole fairly and adequately submits the issues in the
case to the jury, and [we] reverse only if the instruction was
capable of confusing and thereby misleading the jury." Bennis v.
Gable, 823 F.2d 723, 727 (3d Cir. 1987) (internal quotations omitted); United States v. Zehrbach, 47 F.3d 1252, 1264, (3d
Cir.), cert. denied, 514 U.S. 1067 (1995).
In Keeble v. United States, 412 U.S. 205 (1973), the United
States Supreme Court stated that a criminal defendant is entitled
to a lesser included offense jury instruction if the evidence
would permit the jury to find him guilty of the lesser offense
and acquit him of the greater. The Court of Appeals for the Third
Circuit, quoting Keebler, has similarly held that a jury
verdict convicting a defendant of a lesser offense will be upheld
if a jury could rationally find him not guilty of the greater
offense. United States v. Frorup, 963 F.2d 41, 42 (3d Cir.
1992). The Third Circuit added that a jury instruction on a
lesser included offense is allowable "as long as there is some
evidence to support the conviction." Id.
Under Pennsylvania law, "[a] person is guilty of involuntary
manslaughter when as a result of the doing of an unlawful act in
a recklessly or grossly negligent manner, or the doing of a
lawful act in a recklessly or grossly negligent manner, he causes
the death of another person." 18 P.C.S.A. § 2504(a); See also
Commonwealth v. Perez, 2003 WL 22497139 *2 (Pa. Com Pl. 2003).
In Perez, the court noted that where there was only evidence
that a defendant's actions were knowing or intentional, the
evidence would not support an involuntary manslaughter verdict.
The evidence presented at Stroll's trial established that the
victim was struck over the head numerous times with a baseball bat, had his throat stomped upon, and that there was an attempt
to break his neck. Evidence also supported a finding that Stroll
and his brother had planned the killing. Based on the above, it
is the conclusion of this Court that the failure to provide a
lesser included offense instruction was proper since the evidence
would not support an involuntary manslaughter conviction under
Pennsylvania state law. See Commonwealth v. Rogers,
615 A.2d 55 (1992); Commonwealth v. Reed, 583 A.2d 459 (1990);
Commonwealth v. Long, 579 A.2d 970 (1990).
This is also not a case where the trial court's failure to
provide an involuntary manslaughter instruction opened the door
for an interpretation by the jury that a finding of guilt could
be based by a standard less than beyond a reasonable
doubt.*fn3 This claim likewise fails to set forth a basis
for an award of federal habeas corpus relief. An appropriate
Order will enter.
AND NOW, THEREFORE, THIS 7th DAY OF OCTOBER, 2005, IT IS
HEREBY ORDERED THAT:
1. The petition for writ of habeas corpus is denied. 2. The Clerk of Court is directed to close the case.
3. Based on the Court's determination herein, there
is no basis for the issuance of a certificate of
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